Besides lacking talent at wide receiver, the Falcons' offense sputtered last year, from Matt Ryan's poor decision making in the red zone to not making proper adjustments. There was plenty of blame directed towards the franchise quarterback and Kyle Shanahan, as you'd expect.
How can a dependable veteran quarterback struggle this badly in a new offense? Why can't a supposedly highly regarded offensive coordinator revamp his gameplan for certain matchups? These were common questions heading into a pivotal year for both individuals.
The performances have been spectacular so far, but the level of competition hasn't exactly been challenging. Carolina was expected to present a difficult matchup with their monstrous interior tackles and outstanding linebackers. No offense runs the ball effectively against their stout front seven. This game was going to fall on Matt Ryan's, arm similar to last season. He responded with one of the best games in his career.
Return to glory
Despite being productive on paper against New Orleans, Ryan didn't play particularly great football. He threw behind his receivers on several occasions. Mohamed Sanu should have been targeted more often, as well. A combination of capitalizing on mismatches and the running backs taking over boosted Ryan's stat line. They needed him to be accurate and decisive with Carolina likely taking away the running game.
When you have arguably the best wide receiver in the league, actual receiving options behind him, and a terrific offensive line, it allows an efficient quarterback to play at his best. Ryan made excellent decisions and remained aggressive against a suspect Panthers secondary. It was a different approach than the usual dink-and-dunk method that Falcon fans have become accustomed to over the past few seasons. Ryan hadn't taken that many chances downfield since beating Seattle in the playoffs back in 2012.
There have been questions about Ryan's arm strength over the years. It's no secret that he doesn't possess an arm like Aaron Rodgers. After underthrowing Julio Jones on a likely touchdown, those questions were asked again. It was a golden opportunity, as Jones beat Bene Benwikere downfield. Two plays later on third and seventeen, Ryan responded and went back to Jones for a 53-yard completion. When a rare poor decision or throw was made, he responded instantly with a precise downfield throw.
Leading a 98-yard drive against a defense filled with Pro Bowlers is one thing. To produce a 99-yard drive in the same game makes this a landmark performance. Jones clearly played a substantial role, but 203 of Ryan's 503 passing yards went elsewhere. The much-improved supporting cast made several plays that the previous' roster couldn't do last season. From Aldrick Robinson validating his status as a true deep threat to Taylor Gabriel creating separation on the outside, the wide receiver depth hasn't looked this good in over a decade. A banged-up Sanu contributed with a crucial third-down reception and phenomenal block on Jones' touchdown.
Shanahan deserves major credit as well. His brilliance was displayed on Austin Hooper's first career touchdown. It was the exact same play call from their win against Oakland two weeks ago. With Jones running a crossing route and Shaq Thompson chasing Jacob Tamme, nobody picked up Hooper. With Carolina's linebackers limiting their screens, Shanahan needed to devise something else. The misdirection play capped off a 99-yard drive and started Atlanta's third quarter dominance. They eventually secured their win from the NFL's most electrifying receiver.
Jones silences injury concerns
There was some discussion about Jones only catching one pass on seven targets against the Saints. He didn't look as explosive running routes against their decimated secondary. That proved to be nothing more than an illusion. Jones took advantage of Carolina's cornerbacks playing press coverage on numerous slants and post routes. While the commentators kept referencing Josh Norman not being re-signed, talent wasn't the only issue. Shanahan moved Jones around to keep Sean McDermott's defense guessing.
Jones tends to line up on the left side. After constantly moving him around during the 2015 season, Shanahan has limited it so far this season. That changed yesterday; as Jones was being utilized everywhere. If he wasn't abusing Daryl Worley on the left side, he was running go routes past Benwikere on the right side. When Thomas Davis tried to disrupt his route, he remained unfazed. It was the type of big-game performance that you can become accustomed to from a superstar wide receiver. This was more than simply a big game.
In my preview piece, Jones being more involved was one of the featured topics. It seemed inevitable, as the running game was going to be limited. Targeting rookie cornerbacks and forcing mediocre edge rushers to stop them was their best option. Carolina couldn't muster a pass rush without blitzing. Although Ryan took three sacks on blitzes, he completed 11 of 14 passes for 196 yards and a touchdown, according to Pro Football Focus. Jones played a significant role in those gaudy numbers. When he destroyed the Packers' secondary in 2014, most expected it to be his greatest performance ever. For Jones to surpass that against a tough division rival shows how he is capable of anything.
Defense continues to improve in bizarre performance
When evaluating the defense's performance, many will be perplexed at the box score between Cam Newton and Derek Anderson. How did they shut down a superstar quarterback, but allow a journeyman to throw all over them? Losing Deion Jones proved to be more devastating than expected. The rookie linebacker was flying to the ball and made multiple open-field tackles on Newton. With Jones and Sean Weatherspoon injured, the Falcons were reduced to playing LaRoy Reynolds and Kemal Ishmael at linebacker in the fourth quarter.
Greg Olsen went from being shut out in the first three quarters to catching six passes for 76 yards in the fourth quarter. They found success targeting the middle of the field with a perennial backup and strong safety handling coverage responsibilities. Robert Alford didn't help matters by allowing consecutive big plays to Devin Funchess. The fourth quarter collapse was discouraging, but it shouldn't discount how good Atlanta's defense played in the first three quarters.
Newton was clearly rattled, as the pass rush emerged against a revamped Panthers' offensive line. Dwight Freeney continues to be their second best free agent signing behind Alex Mack. He is forming a nice partnership with Adrian Clayborn on the left side. Vic Beasley used his blistering first step repeatedly and looked better than ever, albeit against a second-year backup right tackle. They would have recorded multiple sacks against a less mobile quarterback. Of course, this mangled unit needs to prove themselves against far better offensive lines. Any momentum was needed following abysmal performances leading up to this one.
First litmus test passed
With a two-game lead over the entire division, the Falcons have leeway heading into their brutal road trip. The NFL's best offense (at least on paper) will be playing against the best defense in Denver. Can Matt Ryan play well in a hostile environment against an elite defense? Will these speedy receivers support Jones and create separation against Denver's exceptional cornerbacks? Ryan Schraeder versus Von Miller is going to be a heavyweight battle.
As long as they stay balanced and keep Ryan upright, the offense is capable of being productive against any opponent. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are capable of taking over games. Jones is always a threat to take over any game, regardless of the opposition. Ask Patrick Peterson about that humbling. With dangerous role players, an organized offensive line, and Shanahan keeping defenses guessing, this offense is firing on all cylinders. In 2012, defenses had to focus on stopping Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez. This current offense is a complete juggernaut, which can beat you in a variety of ways. To go from over relying on Jones and Freeman last season to this season's balanced efficiency is pretty remarkable.